Four in 10 North Koreans are chronically short of food and further cuts to already minimal rations are expected after the worst harvest in a decade, the United Nations said on Friday.
Official rations are down to 300 grammes – under 11 ounces – per person per day, the lowest ever for this time of year, the UN said following a food security assessment based on UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) missions to the country last month and in November 2018.
It found that 10.1 million people were suffering from severe food insecurity, “meaning they do not have enough food till the next harvest,” WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said.
Verhoosel said the word “famine” was not being used in the current crisis, but it might come to that in a few months or years. “The situation is very serious today – that’s a fact.”
“We are concerned about this year’s wheat, barley and potato crops, which play an important role in meeting household food needs during the upcoming lean season, despite accounting for only about 10 percent of total production,” said Mario Zappacosta, FAO’s senior economist and co-lead of the mission.
The shortfall is the result of climatic conditions such as “dry spells, heatwaves and flooding” as well as a lack of fuel and fertilisers – in part caused by international sanctions aimed at getting leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons programme.
“Many families survive on a monotonous diet of rice and kimchi most of the year, eating very little protein,” said WFP’s Nicolas Bidault, co-leader of the assessment team.
“This is worrying because many communities are already extremely vulnerable and any further cuts to already minimal food rations could push them deep into a hunger crisis,” he added.
North Korea has for years relied on regular supplies of UN food aid.
Its agricultural output of 4.9 million tonnes was the lowest since 2008-2009, leading to a food deficit of 1.36 million tonnes in the 2018-2019 marketing year, the report said.
Zappacosta said the assessment found that winter-time conditions left crops exposed to freezing temperatures, cutting production by about one-fifth.
The report recommends increasing food assistance and providing fortified foods to meet the current needs and focusing on areas where the shortfalls are greatest or are affected the most by climate.
Expanding nutrition and risk-reduction programmes could help communities better cope with future shocks, the report said.
The report also recommends a series of measures to boost agricultural production including importing high-quality seeds, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, water pumps and greenhouses, as well as upgrading grain-drying equipment, threshing machines and storage facilities in order to minimize post-harvest losses.
While carrying out the assessment, teams were granted access to cooperative farms, rural and urban households, nurseries and public distribution centres and were able to speak to households, farmers, government officials and others.
North Korea suffered a famine in the mid-1990s believed to have killed as many as three million people.